A Calculated Risk

With the publication of Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate only a week away (7/29), author Ken Hughes is suddenly in great demand, so we appreciate his taking the time to answer a few questions about his book. Chasing Shadows shows how the covert activity that would eventually bring Nixon down had its roots in the 1968 presidential campaign, when the Republican nominee involved himself secretly in the Paris peace talks. One of the fascinating aspects of Hughes’s book is the interaction between Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, who was only months away from his self-imposed retirement. It is a complex—not to say controversial—story, and in the following interview Hughes sheds much light on these two master politicians and the remarkable events they were at the center of.

Q: With the 40th anniversary of the resignation looming, there are a number of books being published at roughly the same time on the subject of Nixon and his downfall. What sets Chasing Shadows apart from the rest of this barrage of books?

A: Chasing Shadows is shorter! It doesn’t try to explain the entire era or every aspect of the man. Instead, the book answers one question: What was the motive behind the only break-in that we know for a fact Nixon personally ordered (because his own secret recording system captured the order on tape)? It’s a simple question with a complex, twisty answer that winds up illuminating a lot about one president’s rise and fall.

Q: Your book leaves little doubt that Nixon interfered in the Paris peace talks in 1968. It isn’t exaggerating to say this was a treasonous act. Having said that, do you think Nixon affected the process substantially? In other words, was there the glimmer of a chance that the war could have changed its course at that point? And if not the war itself, do you think Nixon’s actions impacted the election?

A: The State Department certainly defines violations of the Logan Act as treasonous. Interestingly enough, most writers think South Vietnam would have boycotted the Paris peace talks before Election Day 1968 even if Nixon had not secretly encouraged them. Saigon, after all, preferred Nixon, the premier anti-Communist politician of the Cold War, to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Democrat who had opposed Americanizing the Vietnam War in the first place. The South Vietnamese knew that boycotting the talks would hurt Humphrey and help Nixon. They also feared (correctly, as it turned out) that the peace talks would become a cover for American withdrawal from the war. In the conventional interpretation of events, Nixon could have achieved the results he wanted by doing exactly nothing.

If that were true, then taking the enormous risk of breaking the law by sabotaging the peace talks would have been the act of a political numbskull, not a political genius, which Nixon truly was.

I think the conventional view is mistaken. Writers tend to overlook the reason why South Vietnam, right after the election, reversed course and agreed to take part in the peace talks. President Johnson got President-elect Nixon to privately issue an ultimatum from both of them to Saigon: if it didn’t take part in the negotiations, it would lose the support of the American government. That threat had teeth. South Vietnam depended on American support for its very survival. The ultimatum worked because it came from the leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties, so South Vietnam realized it had no alternative. Saigon immediately assured the United States it would send a delegation to the Paris talks, although it did drag its heels a bit more.

During the campaign, in his public statements, the Republican nominee had said repeatedly that he wanted the South to take part in the peace talks. If Saigon had believed him, it would have thought it had no choice. The whole point of Nixon’s secret messages to the South Vietnamese during the campaign was to make sure they knew that he didn’t really mean what he was telling American voters. This gave Saigon room to maneuver that it otherwise wouldn’t have had. Sabotaging the peace talks wasn’t some dumb mistake on Nixon’s part. It was a calculated risk he took, knowing that the bigger risk to his campaign would have been to allow peace talks to start before Election Day.

Of course, once the sabotage succeeded, Nixon had to worry about covering his tracks. And that’s the best explanation for why as president he ordered the burglary of a think tank. He’d been led to believe it had secret documents on events leading up to the start of the peace talks. Once again, it was a calculated risk. A break-in would involve the risk of impeachment and imprisonment, but exposure of his political interference in the peace talks would have been a bigger threat.

The peace talks never did produce peace. Hanoi was unwilling to give up on taking over the South militarily, and neither Nixon nor Johnson nor any of their military and civilian advisers ever came up with a strategy to make it give up. The only way to prevent a Communist takeover was to keep American soldiers fighting and dying in Vietnam. Johnson wasn’t going to let them win the war in the last three months of his presidency. President Nixon wasn’t going to let them win until after he had secured his own reelection in 1972. In the end, Nixon got Hanoi to sign the (misnamed) Paris Peace Accords by secretly assuring it, through China and the Soviet Union, that it could overthrow the South Vietnamese government without fear of American intervention as long as it waited a “decent interval” after he withdrew the last American troops. And it did.

Q: How exceptional were Nixon’s maneuverings? Can you put them in some sort of historical context? How do you think it compares to other abuses of power by trusted leaders?

A: Nixon’s defenders stick to the line that everybody does it, he just got caught. They launch a flurry of counter-charges against LBJ and other presidents. The problem is that the counter-charges they make about the 1968 election at least don’t withstand scrutiny. They claim Johnson stopped the bombing of North Vietnam before the election to help Vice President Humphrey win. The declassified negotiating record proves this is not true. What really happened is that in June 1968 Johnson set three conditions for halting the bombing: Hanoi had to (1) respect the demilitarized zone dividing Vietnam, (2) accept participation by the South Vietnamese government in the peace talks, and (3) stop shelling civilians in South Vietnamese cities. Month after month, Hanoi insisted that the bombing halt be unconditional. Johnson wouldn’t budge. Finally, in October 1968, Hanoi accepted all three of his demands. Johnson didn’t choose the timing of the bombing halt. Hanoi did. Nixon’s defenders also claim there was something illegal about the surveillance by which Johnson found out about Republican interference with the peace talks. Yet they never say which law they think was broken. The CIA had a bug in the office of the president of South Vietnam. That may have violated South Vietnamese law, but not American law. The NSA intercepted cables from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington, DC, to Saigon. The CIA and NSA surveillance both were part of diplomatic intelligence-gathering to find out what an allied government’s position on peace talks really was. Again, this doesn’t violate American law.

Johnson ordered an FBI wiretap on the South Vietnamese embassy phone. At the time, all that required was the OK of his attorney general, which he got. The wiretap overheard a prominent Nixon campaign fundraiser, Anna Chennault, deliver a message to South Vietnamese Ambassador Bui Diem from “her boss (not further identified)” urging Saigon to “hold on”—that is, to stay away from the Paris talks. We know for a fact that Chennault introduced the ambassador to Nixon at a meeting in New York that Nixon kept secret from almost all of his campaign aides and from the Secret Service detail assigned to protect him. According to Chennault, at that meeting Nixon designated her “the sole representative” between his campaign and Saigon.

LBJ didn’t know about that secret meeting, and his lack of proof that Nixon was involved was one of the reasons he didn’t go public with the evidence he had of Republican sabotage.

Many presidential candidates have been accused of violating the Logan Act, but I have yet to see a case against any of them that is as good as the case against Nixon. And once Nixon was president he set up an illegal, unconstitutional secret police unit operated out of the White House to carry out the one break-in we know he ordered. There’s no evidence any other president committed that particular abuse of power. Whenever you hear the everybody-does-it excuse, it’s best to ask for the evidence. The compensatory accusations Nixon’s defenders make against other president don’t all withstand scrutiny.

It’s important to note, however, that there still isn’t “smoking gun” proof of Nixon’s involvement in the Chennault Affair. In history, you look for the explanation that best fits the facts. The actions Nixon took as candidate and president make sense if he was guilty; if he wasn’t guilty, then a lot of what he did makes no sense at all.

Q: Readers will be struck by the almost jovial tone between Johnson and Nixon. He’s warmer with Nixon than he is with his own vice president. Is this a quality of an older, less partisan era in politics (it’s hard to imagine Obama and Boehner sharing so many laughs), or is this partly a smokescreen? Does LBJ have motives for sharing info with Nixon, beyond courtesy?

A: Johnson was a consummate phone artist. I hope everyone who reads the book goes to chasing-shadows.org and listens to some of the Johnson tapes as well as the Nixon ones. Johnson had practical reasons for reaching out to Nixon. He wanted to make sure that none of the presidential candidates undermined his negotiations with Hanoi by offering to stop the bombing for anything less than his three conditions. He thought Hanoi would wait until after the election if one of the candidates offered a better deal than his. That’s why he kept Nixon as well as independent candidate George Wallace briefed on the negotiations—so they wouldn’t undercut him. It was easy to get their support for his demands, since Nixon didn’t want a bombing halt, and Wallace wanted a bombing surge.

But his own vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came out in favor of a bombing halt without insisting on all three of LBJ’s conditions. Johnson was furious and thought that Humphrey had destroyed his chances of getting peace talks started. He was mistaken. Within weeks, Hanoi accepted all three of LBJ’s demands. But Johnson was so angry with Humphrey that he went so far as to secretly advise the Republicans on how to campaign against the nominee of his own party.

Q: You must have been a grade-school kid when the Watergate saga was unfolding. What do you remember about it? Did you come from a Nixon household?

A: I entered kindergarten the year Nixon entered the White House, 1969, and he’s the first president I remember. My mother was a New Deal Democrat, my father an Eisenhower Republican. They both voted for the Eisenhower/Nixon ticket in the 1950s, but they voted for JFK over Nixon in 1960. I can’t say for sure how they voted in 1968 or 1972; memories differ, and my understanding of things at the time was understandably limited.

Watergate was completely unavoidable, no matter what age you were. It took over daytime television on all the networks once the congressional hearings started in 1973 and simply dominated conversation—including playground conversation—for over a year. It was too big for kids to ignore and too complex for us to fathom. I remember having lots of questions. Now I finally have some answers.

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate will be released on July 29.

LISTEN: LBJ Begins to Suspect

A week before the 1968 election, President Johnson called Senator Richard Russell. The conversation begins with personal anecdotes but LBJ then confides in Russell that Republican nominee for the presidency, Richard Nixon, is secretly interfering in the Paris Peace Talks. In Chasing Shadows, Ken Hughes shows how this episode reverberated through Nixon’s own administration and put him on the path to Watergate.

Listen Here

WATCH: Trailer for Chasing Shadows

This summer marks the forty-year anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation as president. This singular event is now far enough away from us to feel like a finished chapter in our history. After all this time, however, there is still much about Nixon’s downfall that is not widely understood. If anything, the story continues to deepen.

On July 29, we will release Ken Hughes‘s new book, Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate. Bob Woodward calls Hughes “one of American’s foremost experts on secret presidential recordings,” and in Chasing Shadows Hughes draws from his unprecedented access to the tapes of both Nixon and Lyndon Johnson to show how the Watergate break-in was part of a larger pattern of behavior, stretching back to the 1968 presidential campaign. The trailer for the book is online now.

Buildings of Michigan Honored

Congratulations to Kathryn Eckert, whose revised edition of Buildings of Michigan was selected by the Michigan Architectural Foundation as part of Rae Dumke Collection of 100 Essential Architecture Books. An opening reception highlighting the collection was held at the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, Michigan, on June 11, 2014; a video of the official comments can be viewed online.

Living Wright

To commemorate Frank Lloyd Wright’s 147th birthday, we are happy to highlight two forthcoming volumes: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House by Steven M. Reiss and Frank Lloyd Wright: Preservation, Design, and Adding to Iconic Buildings edited by Richard Longstreth.

The first volume, which recounts the history of one of Wright’s early Usonian houses, is at heart a tale of four people: Loren and Charlotte Pope, who approached Wright about designing a home for their family, and Marjorie and Robert Leighey, who purchased the house from the Popes and deeded the property to the National Trust to save it from demolition.

Loren Pope described the house with these words in his article “The Love Affair of a Man and His House,” published by House Beautiful in August 1948: “Ours is a big small house for a small family. It is L-shaped, one-story on two levels because the lot slopes, with living room eleven-and-a-half feet high, and a red-colored concrete floor. For light, ventilation, and decoration this house has a patterned ribbon of clerestory windows between the top of the wall and the ceiling. The only support for the roof where they ran was a strut the size of your wrist placed every four feet, the width of a window unit. You can sit by the fireplace at night and see the stars. It has rows of plate glass doors from floor to ceiling where an ordinary house has a single window. Where these doors meet a corner, there is no corner post, the room just opens into the outdoors. And from these doors, the floor flows right on out on two sides of the living area to become terraces. It has brick supporting piers that are also a part of the interior finish. It has cypress wood walls only two-and-a-half inches thick.

“On both outside and inside are identical, horizontal, twelve-inch cypress boards and interlocking battens, no studs or other members, all screwed together. The few vertical accents, such as the brick piers, emphasize the horizontal flow that ties the house to the earth and that gives it great repose.

“There is no paint to be cleaned or to be done over every three or four years, at $500 or more per doing. There is no plaster—which also means no mess, no future dust storms while that is being repaired or done over. The finish, both outside and in, is clear wax, a treatment that reveals and softly complements the beauties of brick and wood. There are no wood floors to be refinished, resanded, or relaid when warped or squeaky. There are only these surfaces to be cleaned: waxed wood, waxed brick, waxed red concrete, plate glass, and textiles, such as cushions and carpets. The honest use of materials satisfies. There is no cleaning of streaked and sooted walls because radiant heat is clean heat. Where roof levels change, they are continued inside as decks, or as an open trellis to accentuate this flow. This handling of changing levels or planes, and of proportions is so masterful that the interior space seems to come alive. It gives the same sense of release and of shelter as walking in a forest. Everyday this house reminds us that the true elegance that lifts the spirit and pleases the soul is not a function of size or cost but is open to all who are able to see it and desire it. It is within your grasp.”

Marjorie Leighey recalled her home in equally glowing terms in “A Testament to Beauty,” which appeared in The Pope-Leighey House, published by the National Trust in 1969: “What was it like to live there—not just to look at it but to live in it? How did you live? What did it feel like? . . .
In a sense, living there was a response to the feeling of the house. Elsewhere in this study are many descriptions and pictures of its architecture. That it could have feelings, as well as a feeling, arises from its real union of the outdoors with the inside, from the glorious, ever-changing play of patterned sunlight upon the walls, and from three paradoxes intrinsic to its structure. Small, yet large because there is no point in the house where one feels spatially bound. Complex with a careful development of patterned and plain areas held together by imaginative and attentive design, yet simple in its forthright presentation of minimal living space. Proud almost to the point of arrogance in boldly declaring itself for what it is and standing thereon, yet humble in never pretending to be other than it is. Such are its paradoxes and they imply mobility or interchangeability. All these qualities–not only the “bringing of the outdoors in” but an actual oneness of the two, not just light in a room but the vivid joy of warm light that moves even as the sun moves, and the three seeming contradictions or paradoxes–impart such life to the house that it is not irrational to acknowledge that it has feelings.”

The second volume, which comprises thirteen essays written by top professionals in the fields of architecture and preservation, addresses the pressing issue of how best to approach Wright’s legacy, as Richard Longstreth notes in his introduction: “Over half a century has elapsed since Wright’s death. Even the newest of his buildings can, and should, be seen from a historical perspective. Thirty of his houses and sixteen of his commercial, institutional, and religious buildings, spanning a career of six decades, currently function as historic house museums or are otherwise publicly accessible. While responsible stewardship is likely to entail preservation, and sometimes restoration, of the building’s fabric, the institutions formed to safeguard these properties often have practical requirements that cannot be met appropriately within the buildings themselves and thus require additional facilities, existing or newly constructed for the purpose. And all the other extant work–around 265 buildings and complexes—must likewise satisfy the evolving needs of their occupants if they are to remain viable. How are such demands met without detracting from the Wright legacy? How Wrightian can additions, alterations, or adjacent work be? Can they employ a Wrightian idiom without reducing the results to caricature? How differentiated should such work be? How deferential? How much should it reflect current practices—technical and spatial, as well as esthetic? And how should it relate to a larger visual context, given Wright’s capacity to respond in remarkable ways to natural settings and general indifference to urban and suburban ones? Indeed, Wright’s mature work by and large consists of stand-alone buildings, many of which defy their man-made settings. Can, then, an addition or new adjacent building enhance a work by Wright? Or should such interventions remain in the background, for all intents and purposes out of sight? The answer is always: it depends.”



Frank Lloyd Wright: Preservation, Design, and Adding to Iconic Buildings edited by Richard Longstreth and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House by Steven M. Reiss will be published this fall.

Nash in Washington Post

Stephen Nash, author of the forthcoming Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform our Cities, Shorelines and Forests, has an op-ed piece in today’s Washington Post. Nash provides the facts about climate change as it relates to Virginia—from a measurable 4.6-degree rise in temperature per century to a projected 2-foot rise in sea level by 2050—to emphasize the urgent need for the state legislature’s GOP majority to change its mindset. Protecting our environment, Nash argues, is not all at odds with conservative values.